Tracing the extraordinary trajectory of Caesar's life from birth through assassination, historian Goldsworthy covers not only Caesar's accomplishments as charismatic orator, conquering general, and powerful dictator, but also lesser-known chapters during which he was high priest of an exotic cult, captive of pirates, seducer not only of Cleopatra but also of the wives of his two main political rivals, and a rebel condemned by his own country. Goldsworthy realizes the full complexity of Caesar's character, places his subject firmly within the context of Roman society in the first century B.C., and shows why his political and military leadership continues to resonate some two thousand years later.--From publisher description.
The preeminent biography of Caesar. Highly recommended.
Goldsworthy is particularly diligent in describing the battles and campaigns, with numerous references to historical works and archaeological finds that tie in to what he is describing. The book also contains a number of helpful charts showing deployments prior to and during various battles.
This biography is a must read for the Roman history aficionado and is highly recommended for anyone interested in learning a little more about one of the most significant names from ancient Rome.
Writing a biography of Caesar presents the formidable challenge of humanizing the subject - much like writing about Napoleon or Robert E. Lee. They are the 'marble men' in Shelby Foote's phrasing. Goldsworthy succeeds admirably in this regard. He repeatedly cautions the reader not to regard the events of Caesar's life as inevitable. The reader gets the sense of Caesar as a man who strove to succeed above all else, but could have failed.
His lively writing style paints an engaging portrait of Caesar (much more so than Anthony Everritt's 'Augustus', for example). Crisply described battle scenes give the reader a good sense of what happened and why, whether against the Gauls at Alesia or Pompey at Pharsalus.
Contrary to some other reviewers, I found that Goldsworthy's background as a preeminent military historian serves him well. At Caesar's most successful he was above all a Roman general and spent most of the last 15 years of his life fighting wars first against Rome's enemies and later against other Romans. True, Caesar was nearly 40 before he embarked on the victories that made his place in history, but we remember him for those years as a military leader not for his role as praetor or pontifex maximus.
A remarkable one-volume biography. I'd give it more than 5 stars if I could. Highest recommendation.
One of the greatest strengths of this book is how it manages to put Caesar into his time and place - nobody in 30 B.C. knew that Caesar would become the figure we think of him as now, and so there was nothing fore-ordained or inevitable about his rise and fall. Goldsworthy is also careful to highlight where sources are contradictory, unclear, or inadequate - something that lends a historian more authority in my eyes than bald assertions could ever do. By drawing attention to these uncertainties, Goldsworthy illuminates a clearer understanding of Caesar and his times for the reader.
Descriptions of political motivations of the various players were very interesting. The Gallic wars took up quite a chunk of the book. I was less interested in these, partially because (as noted by Goldsworthy) virtually the only historical sources for this period are written by Caesar himself. I also found the epilogue somewhat watery and hedged (it is written by a historian after all). However overall it was a clearly written book which gives a very good insight into the man Caesar and his time.
For someone who is supposedly a military historian, it is beyond my power to understand how Goldsworthy could make the Gallic Wars sound so dull. It appeared to me thathe was bored by them. He seemed to pick up interest in the Civil War. I found his summary decent.
For me, a major problem was the style of writing--mostly simple, declarative sentences. Such monotony along with the appearance of a lack of real interest in his material made for heavy going.
Another very subjective complaint I have about the book is a lack of a point of view. I'm surprised that in 2007 someone can still make the statement in print of strivign to be entirely objective. That's a vain hope! No one is. In doing so, his material loses life. There is a saying in opera, "strong opinions, strong production". I think it applies equally well to writing.
Granted, any author of fiction has far, far more leeway than a historian. But McCullough brings her characters to life, which made it far easier for me to remember the material! Also, you can learn far, far more about Roman life, culture, institutions, etc from her glossaries which beat anything I have ever seen in novels.
Any really good general history ought to inspire the reader to go to original sources. I can't imagine desiring to read Caesar's Commentaries after reading Goldsworthy. Yet they are utterly fascinating.
The only reason why I didn't give this book the lowest rating is that it is useful to have the material all inone place. And it certainly helps to put one to sleep at night--a good cure for insomnia.
The basic outlines are clear with one paragraph in the introduction opening with the sentence, "Ceasar was a great man", and another opening with the sentence, "Caesar was not a moral man....", the two sides of his character being amply illustrated throughout the 23 chapters. Goldsworthy gives cognisance to the fact that the 1st century B.C. Roman Republic were not moral times and that ancient history needs to be judged in its own context, for example Roman pride in "virtu" (which could be expressed by conquering weak neighbours) or the mass entertainment of gladiatorial combat. Ceasar was a famous philanderer of the aristocratic wives of Rome which caused him some obvious difficulties, and he could bribe his way through politics and ally himself with armed gangs as well as the best of them, finally breaking the Republic by crossing the Rubicon and imposing himself as dictator.
Militarily, he was as consistently successful as he had been with the Roman wives, conquering Gaul and eventually reaching the pinnacle of power that he had always sought through the defeat Pompey, his only credible rival in wealth, political influence and armed might. He combined cunning with aggressiveness, succeeding in subduing Gaul in good measure by his clemency and willingness to grant Roman rights, and it is notable that his well designed legislation continued to proved its worth under the subsequent rule of Augustus.
I found this a very rewarding and recommendable book (much better than Tom Holland's "Rubicon").